From Homer to Hans Christian Andersen, the novelist trawls the canon for the the saltiest stories of life on board ship
“Given that men have sailed the seas for thousands of years, it’s perhaps surprising how few great works of literature have been inspired by the seafaring life. Sailing may have promised adventure, but in reality it was a dangerous profession that attracted only the toughest, few of whom were equipped with a talent for writing. Their yarns remained fixed in the oral tradition, and in general, writers directed their attention elsewhere. But the exceptions are majestic.”
1. The Odyssey by Homer
Written in an era when the world believed in magic, and that the unmapped seas contained both marvels and monsters, The Odyssey is the greatest seafaring epic of all. Homer’s storytelling skills are so deft that readers tend to overlook the shortcomings of his hero on the seamanship front: not only does it take Odysseus 20 years to cover the relatively short distance between Troy and his beloved island of Ithaca [see footnote], but during that time, he also manages to lose his entire fleet of 12 ships. When he finally arrives home, not a single one of his crew remains alive. Hardly a great role-model for would-be captains.
2. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Melville’s masterpiece tells the tale of Captain Ahab and his obsessive quest for a whale whose terrifying whiteness comes to embody evil itself. I doubt that any contemporary publisher would take on such a vast, eccentric, anarchic work if it crossed their desk today. Reading it, you realise what a free and wide-ranging genre the novel once was, and how much has been wrecked by a book industry catering to the most conventional taste. Not only does Melville forget all about his main character, Ishmael, for hundreds of pages, but he also allows himself to indulge in endless speculations about the nature of whales, before reaching the conclusion that they’re not mammals, but fish. What to do in the presence of such artistic nerve, but salute?
3. The Narrative of Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe
This is the only novel Poe wrote, and what a strange piece of work it is: a seafaring adventure by a writer who specialised in claustrophobia. Here, Poe explores its opposite: his protagonist, approaching the South Pole, encounters a vast world of menace and shrouded monsters. The story’s abrupt end, complete with unsolved mysteries, sucks you in like a maelstrom. But where better to be stuck than inside one of western literature’s most fertile and weird imaginations?
4. The Shadowline by Joseph Conrad
The Polish-born Conrad stepped into world literature more or less from nowhere; despite English not being his native tongue, his writing is the most sophisticated I’ve ever come across. Of his many extraordinary novels, this classic rite-of-passage story remains my favourite. When the ship of a young, untested captain is becalmed, he is faced with his first big challenge – and despite the odds, rises to it. For, Conrad the deck was a microcosm of the wider world. His novels are all about ethics and honour. Those were the days.
5. A Footnote to History by Robert Louis Stevenson
This short journalistic report, which Stevenson wrote during his final stay in Samoa, provides great insight into Samoan culture – along with a wonderfully ironic dissection of the follies of imperialism. Three colonial powers – Great Britain, the US and Germany – prepare to pitch into battle over the spoils of Samoa when a hurricane strikes and wrecks their men-of-war. Stevenson could have called it The Revenge of the South Seas.
6. The South Sea Tales by Jack London
When I read the novel Ulf Larsen as a boy I didn’t understand the Nietzschean rantings of London’s tyrannical captain, but his South Sea Tales still left a lasting impression on me. His depictions of the brutal life of the Pacific are forthright and disillusioned, especially when the representatives of higher civilisation show up.
7. The Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
The story takes place on the island of Guernsey, but its drama is definitely more French than British, concentrating as it does on the fickleness of women’s love and the futility of men’s heroism. There’s a great underwater scene in which a man fights a giant octopus armed with only a knife. And all this happened before Freud, so the sea could carry all the freight of the subconscious without waving symbolism in anyone’s face.
8. The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen
The Little Mermaid isn’t strictly a seafaring story, but it does involve a lot of swimming. And fish-tails, too. Readers outside Scandinavia tend to think of Andersen as a precursor of Disney, but read The Little Mermaid in its original version, and you’ll discover he was anything but. The prince and the mermaid don’t end up in each other’s arms, and love doesn’t prevail: it brings pain and doom. The Denmark of Andersen’s era was not as idyllic as we’d like to believe. It was a narrow-minded, intolerant and deeply divided society. Andersen, who came from the bottom rung of the social ladder, was never allowed to forget his humble origins. But he cunningly used his fairytales to tell his tormentors harsh truths in a seemingly inoffensive way.
9. August by Knut Hamsun
Despite being a bestseller in Germany, the Norwegian Nobel laureate never had the popularity he craved in Britain. Some claim this is what drove him into the arms of the Nazis. But a better explanation lies in his loathing of modernity, coupled with his passion for the tough, untamed, tradition-loving Nordland region north of the Polar Circle that was his native landscape. This makes Hamsun’s choice of August as the novel’s eponymous hero a surprising one, since August represents the rootless cosmopolitanism and “Americanisation of life” that the author so loathed. But August is unquestionably a sympathetic character, and an endless source of fun, inventiveness, tall tales and generosity. In sidelining his own prejudices Hamsun shows an awareness that the requirements of art supersede those of politics, and herein lies his greatness. Hamsun’s sprawling, entertaining novel with its vivid portrait of a small town on the shore of a big ocean remains immensely readable to this day.
10. The Fishermen by Hans Kirk
In spite of Denmark´s history as a seafaring nation, surprisingly few of its novels describe life at sea. Hans Kirk´s 1928 masterpiece is the understated, tightly-crafted story of a deeply religious fishing community which decides to uproot from the harsh shores of the North Sea and seek a more comfortable existence on the banks of an inland fjord. But the fishermen fail to adapt to their new surroundings. Increasingly isolating themselves to safeguard their puritan belief in a punishing God, the community gradually falls apart. Although almost a century has passed since it was written, The Fishermen still provides a striking psychological insight into the workings of the fundamentalist mind.
• This footnote was added on 15 April 2010 to clarify that Odysseus was indeed away from Ithaca for a total of 20 years, but 10 of those years was spent at war with Troy and 10 on the journey home.
Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/apr/14/top-10-seafaring-tales-carsten-jensen